Badlands National Park

Eight years ago this week I visited Badlands National Park in the middle of January with my friend, Lisa. It was an impromptu Martin Luther King weekend road trip inspired in part by an article in that week’s New York Times about Marta Becket and her Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, California. Lisa, who was also my supervisor, and I had been intrigued by the story of the aging dancer and the performances she gave at her inn in the Mohave Desert.

For an afternoon, we fantasized about the possibility of adding a few vacation days to the long weekend and making the 66-hour round trip drive.

After that idea was justifiably set aside, we still had the road trip bug. Both of us were going through hard break-ups at the time and we needed some space from an Ann Arbor winter with its North Sea skies. Also, we’d each be able to talk through our emotions with the only other person who was in a similar place at the moment. As the weekend approached, we decided to leave the destination unplanned, but to head south. If it came to it, we figured, we could always find a Holidome near Louisville and spend the weekend bathing our sorrows in a hot tub and alcohol.

We set off on Saturday morning in the Pam Dawber, Lisa’s Ford Taurus station wagon, heading west on I-94 and then south on I-69. As we drove, we monitored the weather. A snowstorm was moving through the lower Midwest, across our path to Kentucky. We began to second guess our southerly route, and as the junction with I-80 loomed ever closer after we crossed into Indiana, we knew we had to make a decision whether to avoid the storm.

Finally, even as we were passing the exit to I-80, I asked, “Do you know where I’d most like to go at this very moment? Badlands National Park.”

Lisa had been there, but she said she’d like to see it again. We waffled only a moment longer before we decided to do it.

I pulled over and made the u-turn across the freeway’s median to get us back to I-80. Soon we were headed west, skirting Chicago’s southern suburbs and continuing on across Illinois. We crossed Iowa through the night, flirted with the outskirts of Omaha, and then headed north on I-29, finally stopping for the night around 2am in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We got a room at a motel, found an IHOP for a late dinner, and fell asleep.

Next morning we pressed on across South Dakota, stopping in the town of Mitchell to have a look at its Corn Palace.

Downtown Mitchell, South Dakota

We continued on, crossing the Missouri River and finally passing into the Mountain Time Zone in the early afternoon. Every so often, a billboard announcing our distance to Wall Drug appeared.

The Missouri

The half-over afternoon had grown overcast before we reached the final stretch of prairie camouflaging the badlands, which lay to the south of the freeway. We entered the park at the Northeast Entrance and followed the Badlands Loop Road from east to west. Save for our stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, we saw no other people while we were in the park.

A mule deer watched us as we began our descent into the Badlands proper.
Image: Lisa Nichols
It’s called “the wall” for a reason.
A herd of mule deer run across the winter prairie.
Image: Lisa Nichols

It was about 30 degrees, and the cold wind, blowing from the badlands up onto the lip of the prairie, seemed to scour me clean.

We left the park before it got dark and drove due north across Buffalo Gap National Grassland to the town of Wall, South Dakota. We dined on buffalo burgers at the aforementioned Wall Drug before starting the trip east.

Image: Lisa Nichols

Instead of dipping down into Iowa on the way home, we stayed on I-90 through Minnesota. I don’t remember where the motel was that we stayed in on Sunday night, but the next morning we stopped for some breakfast in the town of Austin, home of the Spam Museum and the historic Paramount Theatre.

Shortly after we got back on the freeway outside of Austin, we noticed it getting colder and colder in the car. We realized that the Dawber‘s heat was giving out on a frigid -6 degree Minnesota morning.

We decided to make for Rochester, the nearest sizable city, and look for a service station that was open on the holiday. We found a BP, and got the Dawber repaired, which took much of the day (including a false start wherein we headed back out on the freeway only to have the heat stop again, forcing us back to the service station).

By late afternoon, we were back on the road. We crossed the Mississippi River and into Wisconsin just before it got dark.

An icy January Mississippi near LaCrosse, Wisconsin

We passed through Chicago, the city I’d call home less than a year later, and finally arrived in Ann Arbor in the wee hours, exhausted but exhilarated.

4 thoughts on “Badlands National Park

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